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BROWN v. G. COM. UNIT. SCH. DIST. NO. 4

March 31, 1993

EARL D. BROWN AND LAURIE A. BROWN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GRIGGSVILLE COMMUNITY UNIT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 4, DELBERT CAMP, KIM CURRY, WILLIAM JOHNSON, STEVE DUNHAM, GERALD WILSON, DENISE CONKRIGHT, JOYCE LEAHY, JOHN EMRICK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, District Judge.

OPINION

The issue: Attorney fees.

The procedural vehicle: Cross motions for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

This action arises out of an administrative hearing held pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b).

Brenton Brown, a child of Earl and Laurie Brown, attended the Griggsville, Illinois public schools. However, because Brenton suffered from a physical handicap as a result of a stroke, the Griggsville school district recommended at its annual meeting in May of 1991 that Brenton be retained in the second grade for another year. The school district also recommended that Brenton be placed in a special class for the physically handicapped in Jacksonville, Illinois, 30 miles from his parents' home. Brenton's parents were notified by the school district of its decision, whereupon Brenton's parents requested a hearing under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(2).

As a result of the request for a hearing, Brenton's transfer to Jacksonville was stayed pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(3), and Brenton remained in the Griggsville school district for the 1991-92 school year. On May 27, 1992, before a hearing was held, the school district met at its annual meeting to consider the placement of its special needs students, at which time it was recommended that Brenton be allowed to advance to the third grade and remain in the Griggsville school district. From a review of the record, it appears that this recommendation was based on the fact that Brenton's academic performance had improved significantly during the 1991-92 school year.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), summary judgment shall be granted if the record shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Black v. Henry Pratt Co., 778 F.2d 1278, 1281 (7th Cir. 1985). The moving party has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2554, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of a material fact exists, the evidence is to be taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific evidence, not mere allegations or denials of the pleadings, which demonstrates that there is a genuine issue for trial. Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102, 105 (7th Cir. 1983).

III. ANALYSIS

Based on a review of the record, the entire controversy appears to revolve around a dispute concerning whether the Plaintiffs are entitled to attorney fees as "the prevailing party" for purposes of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). The material facts of the case are not contested. As such, this dispute is a legal one, which is capable of being resolved by means of summary judgment.

Unfortunately, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B) is inartfully drafted, and the term "prevailing party" is missing an essential modifier, thus presenting the question "the prevailing party in what type of action?". Applying the plain meaning rule, the prevailing party would be the prevailing party in the civil action filed pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). That section allows a party dissatisfied with either the decision of the hearing officer, or the decision of the administrative appeal board, to appeal the administrative finding in a United States District Court.

The Seventh Circuit has yet to interpret the meaning of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). However, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has addressed the issue of when parents are entitled to recover attorney fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B), and that Court has not followed the plain meaning rule in interpreting the statute. In Mitten v. Muscogee County School District, 877 F.2d 932, 935 (11th Cir. 1989), the Court held, based on the legislative history of the Act, that the term "action or proceeding" refers to any administrative proceeding. Thus, the Court found that if plaintiffs could establish that they were the prevailing party in the administrative challenge to the school district determination, they would be able to recover their attorney fees and costs expended in pursuing the school district's ...


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